Can You Finish These Common Auto Phrases?



By: Ian Fortey

7 Min Quiz

Image: Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd / DigitalVision / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Every day around the world about 1 billion cars are out there on the roads doing something. Commuting to work, honking at each other, gassing up, or just looking pretty in a garage. Drivers are putting the pedal to the metal and burning rubber to get where they're going as fast as possible. Traffic is bumper to bumper in total gridlock. Speeders are blowing the doors off of land yachts and backseat drivers are causing road rage as you wait for a Sunday driver to get moving. And that was just a quick sample of the kind of auto phrases we toss out in casual conversation each and every day. From running on fumes to pulling off a Rockford turn, you probably don't even realize how often you resort to a casual idiom or fun turn of phrase that has roots in the world of cars and drivers.

You need not be a gearhead to be familiar with most of these terms and phrases, but it wouldn't hurt either. If you're not just someone who drives the drive but someone who talks the talk, then you'll make short work of these common phrases. So buckle up and don't spare the horses as you take the quiz.

"Drive it like you _____ it" is a phrase that means you should drive it very fast.

Drive i like you stole it is a phrase that applies to anything you're driving fast, usually in a somewhat reckless manner. The reason being that you have to assume you'd be in a bit of a hurry if you just stole the car, right? It's also a song by "Sing Street."


When you're almost out of gas, you could say you're "running on ______."

When the needle is on E and the car is still going, you're running on fumes. It's also an acceptable expression for when you're feeling pretty beat and out of energy, but the origin comes from the automotive world.


The Ford Model T was once most popular car in the world and had the nickname of "Tin ______."

Ford sold millions of Model Ts back in the day and they ended up with the nickname "Tin Lizzie." The name comes from a car race in 1922 when a man named Noel Bullock entered his hoodless, unpainted Model T named "Old Liz" into the race. Spectators mocked it for looking like a tin car and "Tin Lizzie" was born. When it won the race, beating much better-looking cars, it spread and stuck.


The person in the passenger seat of your car is "riding _______."

Anyone in the passenger seat is said to be riding shotgun. The term comes from the days of stagecoaches when the stagecoach driver had a guard sitting next to them who literally carried a shotgun to fight off bandits.


Back in the '50s and '60s the massive luxury car models were sometimes called "____ yachts."

The late '50s and through to the '70s saw a rise in cars like the Imperial LeBaron and the Cadillac Sixty Special. The Imperial LeBaron was just shy of 20 feet long, making it the longest production car that wasn't a limousine on the road. That earned it and cars like it the name of land yacht.


You might call another passenger in the car who keeps telling you how to drive a "________ driver."

No one likes a backseat driver, but they show up from time to time with the tiring habit of telling you where to go and how to get there. One of the earliest uses of the phrase dates all the way back to 1914 in the "Daily Kennebec Journal" from Augusta, but in that instance it referred to fire engines. The use of it to denote an annoying passenger can be traced to at least 1921.


"Put the pedal to the _____" is a way to say you're going to go fast.

The phrase "put the pedal to the metal" seems to date back to sometime in the 1970s. It's kind of a fun rhyme that's a more creative way of saying you need to speed up so it's not hard to see why it caught on.


You might call a pair of worn-out and cheap tires some "_______ skins."

The absolute cheapest tires money can buy are called bologna skins. Bologna, as you may have noticed, is usually cased in a very thin, plastic-like film that's not good for much. The term is generally a derogatory one because you wouldn't use it to describe anything of quality.


Sometimes in an empty parking lot you might see a reckless driver "spinning ______."

Spinning donuts is not necessarily something you want to do around a driving instructor or a police officer. Usually done in an empty parking lot, it involves very rapidly braking into turns so the car spins in a full circle leaving round skid marks or donuts. This was another popular one from the '70s.


When you're stuck on the road behind a very slow person, it might tempt you to call them a "______ driver."

The term "Sunday driver" is an old one that implies someone is in no rush whatsoever. Sunday being a day of rest traditionally, anyone out for a Sunday drive is taking their time and maybe just watching the scenery.


To "____ rubber" means to go really fast.

A classic '70s-era saying, to burn rubber is a literal term referring to how a rapid acceleration can cause high friction which will cause a skid on the road and the melting of tires. Nowadays the phrase has gone beyond the auto world to mean doing anything quickly.


If you're comparing how powerful a vehicle is compared to how much it weighs you're looking at the "power-to-weight _____."

Power-to-weight ratio is a way to determine how fast a vehicle is likely to go. A big block V8 engine may seem like a powerful piece of machinery, but in a car that weighs 5,000 pounds it won't move you that fast. Higher power and lower weight means a faster car. Too much power and too little weight can result in poor handling.


We call a term you use when taking a corner and downshifting "heel and ___."

This is how you manage a corner with smoothness rather than a clunky two-step operation that takes too much time. Heel and toe is a smooth action of braking and shifting into a corner as one action. If you've never driven a manual transmission car, this probably means nothing to you.


An old-timey way of asking someone to hurry up and go faster is to say, "Don't spare the ______."

This one goes back into history, again to the days of stagecoaches and covered wagons, when going fast meant pushing a horse to its limit. The saying, "Don't spare the horses" means don't take it easy on them and make them ride as fast as possible.


Sometimes called a J-Turn, you can also refer to this maneuver as a "________ turn."

The '70s TV show "The Rockford Files" lends its name to this rather unsafe maneuver that involves turning a full 180 without stopping the car. For this to work, you need to accelerate in reverse, turn and peel out in rapid succession so that you're going in the exact opposite direction. Best reserved for stunt drivers in movies. Or '70s TV shows.


A mechanic might tell you that a scratch on your car will "____ right out."

This saying was likely sincere once, but it's very often meant as a joke about serious damage these days. A scrape, scratch, or dent will buff right out of it's a small, insignificant thing, but you can also say it sarcastically about damage that is severe. It's from the actual practice of buffing and polishing which can mask very minor paint scratches.


When you quickly raise the RPMs while you downshift you have to "____ the throttle."

Blip the throttle isn't a technical term, but the onomatopoeia of the name indicates how the process works. You have to lightly and quickly hit the throttle, increasing RPMs so that they match up more closely with your wheel speed as you downshift.


Traffic is really backed up to the point no one is even moving. You'd call this "______ to bumper."

Bumper-to-bumper traffic is gridlock, the kind of traffic jam in which it seems like you're all in a parking lot together because the bumper of the car behind you is nearly touching your bumper and likewise for you and the car ahead of you.


When you get into an accident that's not too serious, you'd call it a "______ bender."

Everything is less serious when it rhymes, and fender bender works with that idea. An accident that barely results in more than a dent or scratch is a fender bender, but nothing serious should have the name applied. This one seems to date back to the '60s or '70s, but there's no solid origin for it.


Leaving the scene of an accident is what you call a "hit-and- ___."

Hit-and-run almost sounds playful, but it's a serious crime and that's the legal term for it as well. The term has been used to describe a style of military raid, but in reference to drivers leaving the scene of an accident it dates all the way back to 1924.


When you speed past another car, you can say that you're going to "____ the doors off" the other vehicle.

Blowing the doors off means you're going exceptionally fast. You're either beating someone in a race or blazing past them on the highway. The idea is that you're going so fast it will literally take the doors off of their car. It's also a general use term that means you're the best at something.


When a car spends more time on display than on the road, you can call it a "______ queen."

A garage queen is more of a looker than a performer. This kind of car is either always in a showroom like a museum piece or literally in someone's garage because the owner is either always working on it or just doesn't want to risk it getting damaged.


Officially called a VW Type 1 some people call this car a VW Beetle or a "____ Bug."

Disney is behind the tendency to call a VW Beetle a Bug thanks to the 1968 film "The Love Bug" and a series of four follow-up films about a VW Beetle that is alive and has feelings. The last one came out in 2005.


Car thieves may take a stolen car to a "____ shop" to take it apart.

Chop shops are garages where some illicit work on stolen cars takes place. Word is the name refers to the specific act of cutting a car in half and welding a new one together with a different half. The idea nowadays is to disassemble the car for parts and use them elsewhere.


People often called a gearshift located on the steering column of an older car "three on the ____."

If the steering column is your tree and you only have three forward gears as was the case in older automobiles, then the gearshift could be called "three on the tree" and it made some sense. You're not likely to see one of these anymore.


The phrase "firing on all _________" has transcended the auto world and refers to anything working at peak performance.

This saying dates back to the early 1900s and the first automobiles. Firing on all cylinders means every cylinder in the engine is igniting in order to give the car optimal power. It can be used now to refer to anything that works flawlessly from a machine to a person.


A smooth-running car "runs like a ___."

If you've ever seen a well-balanced top spinning, you'll notice the motion is remarkably smooth and flawless which is where "runs like a top" comes from in terms of automobiles. It just means there are no problems whatsoever.


Exceptional brakes in a car are able to "stop on a ____."

The phrase "stop on a dime" can be traced to at least 1925. A dime is the smallest coin in US currency, so being able to stop on one would require a high degree of precision. Only top quality brakes could pull that off. There is no word on whether anyone ever literally tried to do it, though


A car thief could start a car without a key if they know how to "___ wire" it.

Live wires have been called "hot wires" since the 19th century, but the term hot wire relating to stealing cars seems to date to the 1940s or so. The ignition in a car could be bypassed by completing the circuit and starting the engine. Most modern cars can't be stolen this way, plus it's more time-consuming than movies make it seem.


Not every car is fuel-efficient, and the ones that consume the most fuel are called "gas ______."

The US government helped popularize the term "gas guzzler" in 1978 with the Energy Tax Act that included gas guzzler tax provisions. Cars that didn't meet fuel standards had to pay extra to the IRS.


You have to be careful buying a used car, because while it might seem good at first if it has a lot of issues it could be a "_____."

A car that is a dud is often called a lemon and no one even nows why. The etymology of the term can be traced to several potential sources. A lemon game in a pool hall was a game run by a hustler. British slang held that giving someone something inferior was to hand them a lemon, but why did that lemon imply inferiority? Another potential source came from using lemon to refer to a person who was a loser, but it still doesn't explain why lemons meant that. We may never know.


If you hear someone talking about a diesel-powered vehicle, they might also call it an "___ burner."

Diesel vehicles are called oil-burners but the term is not a pejorative like some might think. Because diesel fuel is very similar to something like furnace oil, it only means that diesel is basically an oil, not that a diesel engine somehow burns up extra motor oil.


Automobiles need to meet certain speed, safety and fuel standards in order for them to be considered "_____ legal."

Not every car is a street legal car. Many cars used for racing can't be used on the roads legally, likewise an unsafe vehicle or a heavily modified one made in a home garage might not be up to standards to be allowed on public roads either.


The high-powered performance version of a Plymouth Barracuda from 1969 was famously known as a "____ Cuda."

A Hemi Cuda was a Plymouth Barracuda, but not every Plymouth Barracuda was a Hemi Cuda. The Hemi was a reference to the engine, the 426 cu. in 7.0L Hemi was first used in 1968. In 1969, Plymouth released a trim package called "Cuda" and it could even be upgraded to a 440 Super Commando V8.


On a long stretch of road when you want to see how fast your car goes, you can "____ it up."

This is more of an old-school expression in reference to testing the limits of your engine. When you're free to push it to the limits, you can open it up by accelerating and finding out just how fast the car can go.


When the light turns yellow, you're supposed to slow down if possible. Those who speed up when they see a light turn yellow are called "Amber _______."

Another cute bit of wordplay, an amber gambler is someone who gambles on being able to make the light rather than slowing and stopping as is the preferred way of handling a light change. This expression is much more common in the UK than America.


When it's time to leave, you can tell people you need to "___ the road."

This phrase is remarkably ubiquitous these days and is used for any time you need to leave. When you hit the road, you're getting on the road to travel to your destination. It likely originates with horses whose hooves would hit the road as they ran.


A common way to describe the anger and frustration a driver may feel with other drivers is "____ rage."

Road rage sounds silly but is a very serious problem that has resulted in injuries and even deaths when people pursue and attack other drivers for perceived slights. The term dates back to the late 1980s after a series of shootings on California roads.


Some people might call a mechanic a "grease ______."

Not always the friendliest term but not necessarily an insult either, a grease monkey is a mechanic. The term may date back to 1928 when children were used to apply grease to the rotating axles of steam engines.


A gearshift mounted on the floor can be called "____ on the floor."

Unlike the three on the tree gearshift, the four on the floor was floor-mounted and gave you four shift options. Those who have never been in a manual transmission car will probably have never experienced such a thing.


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